Microsoft’s “Avoid Ghetto” App: Racism Built into Technology

Microsoft has developed and filed a patent for a new “Avoid Ghetto” GPS app. The app connects to your smartphone (or dashboard GPS) and let’s you know when you’re getting close to a neighborhood with high rates of (street) crime.

A story about this dreadful new technology appeared in this piece by Ross Kenneth Urken, who talked to a CUNY colleague of mine, Sarah E. Chinn, author of Technology and the Logic of American Racism. Chinn observes:

“It’s pretty appalling. Of course, an application like this defines crime pretty narrowly, since all crimes happen in all kinds of neighborhoods. I can’t imagine that there aren’t perpetrators of domestic violence, petty and insignificant drug possession, fraud, theft, and rape in every area.”

Of course, Sarah’s absolutely right about this. (Strangely, The Root mentions her book, uses the same quote, but totally mangles attribution.)

Here’s the way this app is supposed to work, according to the white-fearful-of-crime-imagination (again from Urken):

On the other hand, consider how this app could potentially help wayward drivers in some cities. In Detroit, for example, the city has a central downtown from General Motors headquarters up Woodward Avenue to Ford Field and Comerica Park where comparatively little crime happens. But just a few blocks outside that area, and a driver can find himself amidst streets of abandoned buildings and street-gang territory.

Although this is speculation, I’m sure this is just what the app developers had envisioned when they created this bit of software.  It’s all very Bonfire of the Vanities, really.  Why if Sherman McCoy had this app, he’d have never gotten into all that trouble in the Bronx. But that’s just it, the app doesn’t track the kind of crimes that are really damaging to society as a whole, say, like bank fraud or subprime mortgage scams by “Masters of the Universe” like McCoy.  No, in this app, crime only happens one way: between dangerous street thugs (read: black and brown people) and drivers (read: white people).

This Way
(Creative Commons License photo credit: dblstripe )

Urken goes on to downplay the racial implications of the “Avoid Ghetto” app, by turning to Roger C. Lanctot, a senior analyst at someplace called “Strategy Analytics,” who views the “Avoid Ghetto” app as potentially useful.  Lanctot asserts that “drivers” should have a right to know when they are passing “high-risk” areas.  Here’s what Lanctot had to say:

“We’ve all had that experience when you take the wrong exit and go, ‘Oh shoot,’ because you end up in a neighborhood you shouldn’t be in. Should you look down at the GPS and have a red flag with an exclamation point, ‘Get out!’? I hate to say it because of the racial implication element, but what father wouldn’t want such a capability for their daughter. I’ve seen plenty of dads having their daughters call them every half-hour: ‘Where are you?’ ‘Where are you?’ They would have more piece of mind if they knew their daughters had an app to avoid driving through bad areas.” [emphasis added]

This quote is an interesting rupture in the usually ‘colorblind’ discussions about technology, yet the element of race is so clear, Lanctot wants to distance himself from the implications of what he’s saying.  It some ways it’s also a revealing moment about the white fear of crime (part of the white racial frame) and the construction of so-called ‘bad’ neighborhoods as always black or Latino. The reality is that “high risk” neighborhoods are most dangerous to those who are living in them (that is, predominantly black and brown people), not the white people who are driving through them.

Casual to Deadly: Anti-Asian American Racism

From casual to pandering to deadly, there have been several disturbing reports about anti-Asian American racism in the news. In the more casual forms of racism, it seems that the whole using someone’s name as a way to retrieve an order at fast food places has gone horribly awry. About a month ago a Chick-Fil-A cashier at a store in Irvine, California assigned racist names to two customers and even typed them into the printed receipts (images here). And, just in the past few days, a woman went into a Papa John’s pizza chain in New York City and got called a racist name on her receipt (see that receipt here). Here’s an idea – maybe we could just go back to the “we’ll call your number when your order is ready?” system.

AngryAsianGrrlMN sums this up well when she writes:

This is the kind of casual racism that isn’t talked about, but that Asian people deal with on a regular basis.  We are the invisible minority, and we rarely get the kind of attention that other minorities do.

I’ll just state the obvious here and point out that these incidents didn’t happen in the distant past or some rural backwater, but in supposedly tolerant, cosmopolitan urban areas in the present, putatively post-racial era.

The pandering form of anti-Asian American racism is coming through, not surprisingly, the presidential campaign. John Huntsman, Republican candidate and former Ambassador to China, is fluent in Mandarin and, rather remarkably, spoke Chinese during the Republican presidential debate recently.  Huntsman and his wife have also adopted children from China and India.  All this “foreign-ness” has proven too tempting for some of his political opponents who are using these facts to pander to peoples’ racism and xenophobia.  As AngryAsianMan notes:

“It’s an election year, so you know what time it is. Racist campaign ads! This latest gem is from someone claiming to be a Ron Paul supporter, attacking Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman for his un-American” values. … Here we go with another round of equating China with all things evil. Complete with an extra Oriental soundtrack — never has Mandarin made to sound so sinister. [This video] is one of the most unabashedly racist attack ads we’ve seen in a while.

The ad asks whether Huntsman’s values are “American” values or Chinese?  And, then rather sinisterly photoshops Huntsman into a portrait of Chinese leader Mao Zedong while thoroughly mixing the fear-mongering metaphors and comparing him to the “Manchurian Candidate.” This kind of strategy is what some people refer to as “dog whistle racism,” in other words, political campaigning  that uses coded words and themes that appeal to conscious or unconscious racist concepts and frames. For example, the terms ‘welfare queen,’ ’states’ rights,’ ‘Islamic terrorist,’ ‘uppity,’ and ‘illegal alien’ all activate racist concepts that already exist within a broader white racial frame.

Among the most disturbing news are the details that are emerging surrounding the death of Private Danny Chen in October, 2011. Chen, 19, grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, and is thought to have committed suicide in Afghanistan after enduring racial taunts and bullying (although some now question whether it was suicide at all). A group of his superiors allegedly tormented Chen on an almost daily basis over the course of about six weeks in Afghanistan last fall. They singled him out, their only Chinese-American soldier, and spit racial slurs at him: “gook,” “chink,” “dragon lady.” They forced him to do sprints while carrying a sandbag. They ordered him to crawl along gravel-covered ground while they flung rocks at him. And one day, when his unit was assembling a tent, he was forced to wear a green hard-hat and shout out instructions to his fellow soldiers in Chinese.ethnic slurs. At other times, they forced him to do push-ups or hang upside down with his mouth full of water.

New York Magazine has an extensive piece about Chen’s experience, including his letters home from the military.  Here’s some of what he wrote to his parents:

“Everyone knows me because I just noticed, I’m the only chinese guy in the platoon,” he wrote home. His fellow recruits called him Chen Chen, Jackie Chan, and Ling Ling. But, he added, “Don’t worry, no one picks on me … I’m the skinniest guy and weigh the least here but … people respect me for not quitting.”

Four weeks later, the Asian jokes hadn’t stopped. “They ask if I’m from China like a few times day,” he wrote. “They also call out my name (chen) in a goat like voice sometimes for no reason. No idea how it started but now it’s just best to ignore it. I still respond though to amuse them. People crack jokes about Chinese people all the time, I’m running out of jokes to come back at them.”

The eight men later charged in connection with his death are all white and range in age from 24 to 35; they include one lieutenant, two staff sergeants, three sergeants, and two specialists. Danny’s parents, of course, are inconsolable at the loss of their only son.

Pat Buchanan Out, Melissa Harris-Perry In at MSNBC

There are some big changes happening at MSNBC. Melissa Harris-Perry will host her own weekend show on the network, starting in February.  Harris-Perry is a professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. She’s also the author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. Harris-Perry has been a frequent guest on other MSNBC shows where she is offers a consistently strong analysis on progressive issues and a cogent critic of the racism in mainstream politics.

This is the first time that an African American woman has had her own show on MSNBC.  Harris-Perry follows in the footsteps of other African American firsts, including Carol Jenkins whose career included 23 years as co-anchor of the 6 p.m. newscast and her own local show.

During the same week, MSNBC announced that Pat Buchanan is “out indefinitely” at the network. We’ve written quite a lot about Buchanan’s racism here (and here and here and here) before, so of course, it’s not a surprise to us or regular readers here that Buchanan has some pretty deplorable views. He’s also been the focus of an ongoing campaign by progressive organizations CREDO and ColorofChange to have MSNBC to remove him from airing those views on a major cable news outlet.

What is surprising, and indeed refreshing, is that over the weekend, MSNBC President Phil Griffin announced that Buchanan would not be allowed on the air indefinitely after the release of his latest book, Suicide of a Superpower, and has not decided whether to allow the commentator to return.  Deadline‘s Ray Richmond first reported that Griffin was unhappy with Buchanan’s book, and had not made a final decision on whether he would be back on MSNBC:

Griffin told me after the panel, “I don’t think the ideas that [Buchanan] put forth [in the book] are appropriate for national dialogue on MSNBC. He won’t be coming back during the book tour.” Will Buchanan be back at all? “I have not made my decision,” replied Griffin, who did say he will be tinkering with the network’s format as the year goes on. Pat’s a good guy. He didn’t like [being removed from the air], but he understood.”

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was the most recent civil rights group to join the effort to drop Buchanan. The ADL noted that Buchanan’s book includes racist and anti-Semitic remarks, among them claims that America is being damaged “ethnically, culturally, morally, politically” by the rise in minority populations and the lament that the “European and Christian core of our country is shrinking.” MSNBC President Griffin described the ideas Buchanan expressed in his book as not being “really appropriate for national dialogue, much less the dialogue on MSNBC.”

I couldn’t agree more with Griffin on this point. This is part of the argument that we’ve been making about Buchanan for a long time here.  It’s not a free speech issue to take away Buchanan’s platform. He doesn’t have a constitutional right to a spot as a commentator on a cable news show. By allowing him to air his views, the network effectively skews the terms of the debate to the far-right for viewers of that show.  While it’s quite possibly (likely even) that Buchanan will find a welcome audience for his views over at FoxNews, I still think it’s the right decision (if belated) for MSNBC to suspend him.  Griffin should look seriously into Buchanan’s views over the long term and make the next right decision, which is to fire him.

The combination of these shifts at MSNBC – Buchanan out, Harris-Perry in – signal a shift in the direction of a major news outlet.  Only time will tell if this contributes to a shift in the conversation about race at the network and in the broader arena of mainstream political discourse.

Race and the GOP Frontrunners

At this hour, it’s still too early to tell who will win the Iowa caucus but current reports suggest that there’s are three contenders for the lead: Rick Santorum, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

While the Iowa caucus is a notoriously bad predictor of the presidential race (Mike Huckabee anyone?), still it’s a good bet that at least one of these three will be the GOP front-runner for the presidential race.  And, given the heated rhetoric about supporters on both sides of political aisle being ‘race blind’ or ‘playing the race card’ or whatever phrase we’re using today, I thought it would be good to review the track record of the three GOP frontrunners.

First, it’s worth noting that all three of these GOP candidates have also, equally, distinguished themselves in their ardent homophobia in the service of gaining high political office. Santorum vows to “invalidate” all currently legal gay marriages and has a long history of homophobic statements, which earned him this dubious distinction on Google. Romney refuses to acknowledge that LGBT folks exist and when he can bring himself to acknowledge it he finds the thought “perverse” and “repellent.” Paul has made a series of homophobic statements while ostensibly supporting same-sex marriage, although this changes depending on his audience.  My point here is that rarely will you see anyone taking these candidates to task for both racism and homophobia, and that’s a missed opportunity in my view.  Onward….to the candidates views on race.

Rick Santorum. Most recently, Santorum has been criticized for implicating black people as the sole (and primary) beneficiaries of the welfare state when he said:  ”I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money and provide for themselves and their families.” Clearly, Mr. Santorum is ignorant of the research which demonstrates that the majority of those on public assistance  in the U.S. are white, non-urban.

Ok, so perhaps that was a slip of the tongue, or he forgot to review his notes, or something. After all, Santorum came out after this and said that he ‘condemns all racism.’ Ok then, we’re good, right?  Not so fast. Santorum’s record on policies that disproportionately affect folks not identifying as white has been less than stellar.

Going back to at least 2007 (and possibly eariier), Santorum has participated in events at college campuses, organized by David Horowitz of the Los Angeles-based Freedom Center, that bring together Muslim-bashers and Islamophobes  to try and promote hostility toward the faith of Islam and the American Muslim community.

Mitt Romney. Some people are talking about Romney’s “racism by proxy” problem.  By that, they’re referring to his long membership in the Morman church which did not admit blacks until 1978.  And, until then, the Mormon church was not just a little but a lot racist toward blacks (basically, black skin = evidence of God’s condemnation). Of course, Romney’s not defending those views today, but there’s not anyone in the mainstream media calling him on these views either. So, there’s that.  What’s Romney saying on the campaign trail that relates to race?

Mitt Romney has been using a lot of thinly veiled language that’s intended to evoke race – words like “entitlement society” and claiming the President wants to turn American into a “European-style welfare state.” All of this is language meant to conjure up an image of indolent black and brown people, refusing to work, while receiving government “entitlement” checks while hard-working, tax-paying, white people foot the bill.

Romney has also promised to veto the Dream Act if elected president.  The Dream Act, you’ll recall, is a very modest version of immigration reform that would provide a pathway for children of immigrants who came to this country as children to go to college. Vowing to repeal it if elected, is – in my view – nothing short of a mean spirited attack on some of the most vulnerable.

Ron Paul. Whole volumes are being written about the legacy of Ron Paul’s racism, and well they should be.  The most recently kerfuffle has been about Ron Paul’s newsletters and the overtly racist rhetoric contained there. If you’ve missed this, the CSMonitor has a nice timeline of the events there and what Ron Paul has said in response. Mostly now, he says he didn’t read the newsletters with his name on it and the racist rhetoric inside.

All of this has led mainstream news outlets (along with lots of other folks) to wonder: is Ron Paul racist? This is so the wrong question to be asking at this point.

The more relevant question to be asked (and answered) is one NY Magazine posed: How Ron Paul’s Libertarian Principles Support Racism. That’s the key.  Paul is a libertarian and that is an ideology that is fundamentally at odds with civil rights and racial justice. Ta-Nehisi Coates broke this down in his piece from eariler today on The Banality of Racism where he writes:

“It’s comforting to think of, say, “State’s Rights” as a value neutral, ahistorical proposition. In fact, its always been tied to the aims of white supremacists….It certainly is possible that Ron Paul never read a publications produced in his own name, just as it’s possible to sincerely believe that the Civil Rights Act destroyed personal liberties, … But it’s also true that those beliefs have long been used to shield more odious ones. Forgive me for being suspicious when I see them employed in combination.”

Again, it’s still early to know if any of these three will go on to win the GOP nomination for president, but it’s good to know who the contenders are at this point and where they stand on the important issue of race…even if they are shielding those odious views with more respectable ones.

White Liberals and the Politics of Racism in the Obama Era

It’s relatively old news.hat there might be a racially biased double standard in white voters abandoning Obama   Melissa Harris-Perry pointed this out in a blog post at The Nation back in September, 2011.  One white liberal in particular (Joan Walsh) got pretty bent out of shape about that characterization and pulled the cringe-worthy “some of my best friends are black” routine, which earned a public rebuke from Harris-Perry.  (ouch)

As the presidential politics begin to heat up, so do the racial politics in the Obama era, causing some white (supposedly) progressive writers come somewhat unhinged.  The most recent case in point is Glenn Greenwald.  Greenwald is a lawyer-turned-pundit that writes for (the same place that employs Joan Walsh).

Greenwald has been critical of Obama’s signing of the National Defense Authorization Act. The annual NDAA is the essential piece of legislation that pays U.S. soldiers’ salaries, funds equipment for troops overseas, buys ammunition, and also pays our military contractors abroad.

Greenwald is frequently identified as a writer of the left-leaning pundit class who is “disappointed with President Obama” over various policies. The debate over the NDAA (and U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan) between Greenwald and his supporters, and pro-Obama bloggers like Imani Gandy, of, has taken off on Twitter and resulted in some pretty ugly exchanges, like the following one.

Zerlina Maxwell writing at The Grio, recounts the Twitter throw-down very thoroughly (these two screen shots are from her piece).  On Saturday night, a blogger named “DrDawg” said this about an Obama supporter: “Obama could rape a nun live on NBC and you’d say we weren’t seeing what we were seeing.” In response, Greenwald chimed in, “No – she’d say it was justified [and] noble – that he only did it to teach us about the evils of rape.”


Not surprisingly, Twitter exploded and lots of people called out Greenwald for making a “rape joke.” Greenwald has over 68,000 followers on Twitter so when he says something there, it’s to a rather large audience (at least potentially).  But, rather than apologizing for the comment, Greenwald doubled down, saying that the reference to rape was not a metaphor and in fact Obama supporters would defend the president in the face of “ANY evil: assassinations, child-killings: EVEN rape violent crime like rape.”

In U.S. culture, the image of a black man raping a “pure” woman like a nun (read: virginal) is an incendiary reference that conjures up the legacy of lynching and the myth of the black male rapist that was used to justify that violence. Using the “nun rape smear” to make a point about political supporters of Obama has a lot of people outraged, and rightly so, perhaps chief among them are survivors of actual rape (not the political-point-making-rhetorical-rape). Greenwald got pretty defensive when he thought one of his Twitter followers was accusing him of racism (he wasn’t) and he continues to even acknowledge that the remark might have been offensive.

It’s not clear what the impact of this comment is going to be for Greenwald, if for example, he’ll lose his cushy telecommuting gig with or drop below 50,000 Twitter followers. One thing is for sure, if what we need is what legal scholar Ian Haney Lopez calls a “deep engagement” [pdf] around matters of race, this kind of rhetoric isn’t helping us get there.